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Recital
ELEGANT PIANISM IN WATER MUSIC CHARMS HOUSE RECITAL AUDIENCE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, September 03, 2017
A standard component of house concerts often involve listeners hearing the music but also smelling the lasagna and seeing the champagne in the adjacent kitchen. But it was not the case Sept. 3 at Sandra Shen’s Concerts Grand House Recital performance, as her riveting piano playing enthralled the sm...
Chamber
YOUNG MUSICIANS SHINE AT PIANO SONOMA CONCERT
by Lee Ormasa
Tuesday, August 01, 2017
The third in a series of four concerts by Piano Sonoma artists in residence, part of the Vino and Vibrato Series, was held August 1 in Schroeder Hall at the Green Music Center. Entitled “The Masters,” the program included works by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Piano Sonoma is a summer artist-in...
Chamber
THRILLING PROGRAM CLOSES VOM CHAMBER FESTIVAL AT HANNA CENTER
by Lee Ormasa
Sunday, July 30, 2017
The finale of the two-week Valley of the Moon Music Festival closed July 30 with “The Age of Bravura” concert at the Sonoma’s Hanna Boys Center. The musical selections held to this year’s Festival theme “Schumann’s World - His Music and the Music He Loved.“ This summer Festival features chamber mus...
Chamber
PERIOD INSTRUMENTAL SOUND AT PENULTIMATE VOM FESTIVAL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, July 30, 2017
In the Valley of the Moon Chamber Music Festival’s penultimate concert July 30 the perennial issue of period and modern instruments was apparent. But only in the concluding Mendelssohn Trio, as the performances in the two first half works easily avoided instrumental comparisons. Clara Schumann’s t...
Chamber
ECLECTIC REPERTOIRE IN FETCHING VOM FESTIVAL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, July 22, 2017
One of the purposes of summer music festivals is to present unfamiliar music in an attractive and often small audience setting. The Valley of the Moon Music Festival delightfully met these requirements July 22 and 23 with two concerts in the small hall at Sonoma’s Hanna Boys Center. Classical Sono...
Recital
ADAMS' PHRYGIAN GATES HIGHLIGHTS MORKOSKI FESTIVAL PERFORMANCE
by Lee Ormasa
Saturday, July 22, 2017
Attendees at the Molly Morkoski Mendocino Music Festival recital July 22 were in for a treat, both pianistically and if they happened to buy a tasty cookie during intermission. The program included Beethoven’s Op. 27 Moonlight Sonata, Adams’ Phrygian Gates, a surprise add-on of Grieg’s Holberg Suit...
Symphony
SOARING VERDI REQUIEM CLOSES 31ST MENDOCINO FESTIVAL
by Lee Ormasa
Saturday, July 22, 2017
We speak frequently about how there is nothing like the experience of a live performance. Seldom was this truer than at the July 22 closing performance of the two-week Mendocino Music Festival. The Festival Orchestra, conducted by of Allan Pollack, joined with the Festival Chorus in a moving renderi...
Recital
ORGAN REGISTRATION MASTERY HEARD IN WALHAIN'S RECITAL
by Robert Young
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
A group of 65 lucky attendees July 18 had the pleasure of hearing Etienne Walhain’s recital at the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa. Mr. Walhain is organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Tournai, Belgium, and played to a varied program Bach, Franck, and Reger. He used the tonal resource...
Opera
DONIZETTI'S DON PASQUALE HAS LYRICAL CHARM IN MENDOCINO FESTIVAL PRODUCTION
by Elly Lichenstein
Friday, July 14, 2017
Mendocino Music Festival's production of Donizetti's beloved opera buffa Don Pasquale - a one-night affair July 15 that was presented in an enormous tent on a greensward overlooking the Pacific Ocean - delighted an audience of more than 600 while doing some real justice to this frothy gem of commedi...
Recital
NOVACEK'S 2ND HALF TRIFECTA SCORES AT MENDO MUSIC FESTIVAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, July 13, 2017
Modern classical piano recitals are in two parts, with longer and perhaps more profound music proceeding perhaps shorter and usually stimulating lighter fare. In John Novacek’s July 13 Mendocino Music Festival recital the best playing came unexpectedly in the eight abbreviated works comprising the ...
CHAMBER REVIEW
Redwood Arts Council / Saturday, March 01, 2008
Jupiter String Quartet

HEAVENLY SERENITY IN OCCIDENTAL

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, March 01, 2008

The March 1 concert by the Jupiter String Quartet and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester at the Occidental Community Church drew a remarkable crowd--not in terms of numbers (the concerts there are often sold out), but rather in terms of age. After squeezing into one of the few remaining pew seats, I looked around and beheld crowds of young faces, perhaps a third of the audience. This was not your usual chamber music crowd; nor is the Jupiter String Quartet your usual chamber music ensemble.

The Jupiter was, in a word, spectacular. Composed of four youthful musicians, the quartet is every bit as good as more venerable ensembles, bringing to mind the glory days of the Juilliard Quartet under Robert Mann. They play with the same level of energy and insight that Mann brought to the Juilliard, and their careers have just begun.

The composition of the Jupiter shows how much chamber music has changed since the Juilliard first rose to prominence a half century ago. Instead of four unrelated white men in suits and ties, the quartet is half female (on the middle instruments), with an Asian American (Nelson Lee) playing first violin and the husband (Daniel McDonough) of the second violin playing cello. But wait, there's more: the two women are sisters, with Megan Freivogel on second and Elizabeth Freivogel on viola. In the old days, such a close-knit ensemble was unheard of. To cite but one example, the members of the venerable Guarneri Quartet were famous for never socializing with each other. They thought such uncontrolled outside influences might hurt their playing.

There's no evidence that marital spats or sibling rivalry have harmed the Jupiter. On the contrary, all four members are fully engaged with each other, glancing back and forth across the stage and smiling or frowning as the music demands. Above all else, they look like they're having fun.

The evening, however, began on serious note. Before the opening work (Beethoven's last string quartet, Opus 135), cellist Daniel McDonough dedicated the performance to Kit Neustadter, the force of nature who founded the Occidental concerts in 1980 and ran them almost single-handedly until she succumbed to cancer earlier this year. The presence of the Jupiter on the Occidental series is but one indication of the consistently high quality of musicians Neustadter brought to her small venue for nearly three decades.

With Neustadter's memory hovering in the background, the quartet eased into the Beethoven with an absolutely beautiful entry by the viola. The other instruments followed in turn, blending into a warm, room-filling sound in which each voice could be distinctly heard. Their dynamics were well controlled, and their intonation was impeccable. The first movement was great, but the vivacious second was even better, sending shivers up the spine. The first violin played his treacherous high runs perfectly, conveying real excitement and urgency.

The elegant third movement found the players swaying back and forth, their vibratos perfectly matched, the spaces between the notes as expressive as the notes themselves. One wondered how such young players could capture the spirit of this movement, which seems to express Beethoven's own vision of his impending death. Such gloomy thoughts were cast aside in the spirited fourth, which opened with powerful chords that resonated at length in the cello. The second violinist smiled throughout, even during the most insistent passage, where she and the first hammer away at a single note. The pizzicato section right before the end was simply breathtaking.

After the tumultuous applause, I overheard a woman behind me telling her companion, "Those instruments were just talking to you." Indeed they were, in some of the best acoustics to be found in this small corner of the world.

Late Beethoven is a hard act to follow, but the Jupiter finessed that problem by bringing on guest artist Jose Franch-Ballester, a Spanish clarinetist of great charm and wit. He explained that the group had asked him to play a work for solo clarinet. In searching for possible repertory to complement the Beethoven quartet and the Mozart clarinet quintet to come, he stumbled upon the works of Bela Kovacs, a Hungarian clarinet teacher born in 1937 who composes homages to various composers as etudes for his students. Franch-Ballester played two of these homages, one to Bach and one to de Falla.

From the outset, Franch-Ballester displayed a pure, rich tone of great subtlety and variety. The first homage certainly sounded like Bach, with a stately introduction followed by a brilliant allegro. Franch-Ballester played all the runs perfectly, his fingers blazing across the clarinet's many keys. The climax arrived with a fugue, during which Franch-Ballester brought in several voices at different points in his register, sustaining the illusion that all were unfolding simultaneously, even though he could only play one note at a time.

In contrast to the proliferation of notes in the Bach, the de Falla homage focused on the clarinet's panoply of sounds. In Franch-Ballester's capable hands and lungs, these ranged from foot-stomping Flamenco strums to spontaneous "Olés!," with some lightning-fast clapping mixed in. The mixture really evoked the sounds and passions of the player's and composer's native Spain.

Just before the second half began, a large male personage changed seats and placed himself directly in front of me, blocking my view of the stage. This is one disadvantage of the Occidental church, where the unraked floor and the low stage make for some difficult sightlines. No matter: the sound was enough.

Like Beethoven's Opus 135, Mozart's clarinet quintet is a late work, K. 581 out of 626. Many consider it his greatest piece of chamber music, and I am inclined to agree. It has moments of ineffable sadness and unbounded delight, but the dominant mood is one of heavenly serenity. If ever a piece of music floated out of the clouds, this is it.

Unable without craning my neck to view the Jupiter and Franch-Ballester at work upon the stage, I simply closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported on a celestial carpet of sound. The journey began at once, with the group establishing a brisk tempo that carried throughout the first movement. Each instrument stood out in turn before falling back into a blissful unison. In the second movement, the strings created a shimmering background for the clarinet, which entered and exited the stage like a magician materializing out of thin air.

The third-movement minuet was a study in contrasts, its strong, emphatic sections set off dramatically against its melancholic stretches. The contrasts continued into the fourth movement, which features a series of variations on a lilting theme. All the variations were distinctive, but the real standouts were the plangent viola section and the truly virtuosic interplay between the first violin and clarinet near the end.

The standing ovation was immediate and unanimous. After two curtain calls, Franch-Ballester introduced the encore by describing the horrific political situation in Argentina during the Peron dynasty, when soldiers routinely knocked on doors and took family members away, often never to be seen again. It was to these legions of "disappeared" that Astor Piazzolla dedicated his haunting piece "Oblivion," which the group played to heartbreaking perfection. The final moment, when Franch-Ballester simply blew toneless air through his instrument, was unforgettable. All those lives lost in a rush of wind.